Newsrooms are getting whiter as their publications struggle

Even the institutes that provide training for minority journalists are facing difficulties. "Seattle Times" publisher Frank Blethen says diversity remains essential for democracy and the newspapers that serve it.

Crosscut archive image.

Many newspapers are scaling back operations.

Even the institutes that provide training for minority journalists are facing difficulties. "Seattle Times" publisher Frank Blethen says diversity remains essential for democracy and the newspapers that serve it.

Diversity in the nation’s newsrooms is becoming the latest casualty of the economic woes facing the American newspaper industry. For the third consecutive year the number of minority journalists continues to decline, mirroring a national trend of newspaper layoffs. In its most recent 2011 census, the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) reports that minority journalists now comprise only about 13 percent of the workforce, as compared with the remaining 87 percent of white journalists. The number of minority journalists nationwide declined from 5,500 to 5,300 individuals.

The plummeting numbers of African-American, Asian, Latino, and Native American journalists reflect a broader trend of economic contraction in the news industry. In their latest book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, Robert McChesney and John Nichols cite a 2010 Poynter Institute Study that outlines that trend in stark statistics. “The newspaper industry has lost $1.6 billion in reporting and editing capacity since 2000 or about 30 percent over that period,” they write.

In 2009, 300 newspapers in the U.S. shut down, while another 150 folded in 2010. Broadcast news has also scaled back operations, adding to the decline of the number of working journalists in cities across the country. In Baltimore, Portland, Seattle, Denver, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, the Twin Cities, and Milwaukee, the number of paid journalists is down dramatically from where it was one or two decades ago, McChesney and Nichols report.

Local news organizations are being hit hard as well. According to the latest count, minority reporters comprised 22 percent of newsroom staffers at The Seattle Times. Of that total, 13 percent are Asian American, 5.4 percent are African American, and 3.2 percent are Hispanic. At the News Tribune in Tacoma, minority journalists accounted for 12.8 percent of the total newsroom.

Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen attributes the downward trend to the growth of media cross-ownership in recent years. “Pure and simple – it’s the obscene concentration of ownership coupled with a broken, dominant ownership model which doesn’t care about journalism or diversity, or any other communal values.”

“The newspaper business model is very sound and can support journalism and diversity if freed from these financial mercenaries and the unsustainable debt they piled on newspapers. Even in the worst of the recession, the big chains who went through bankruptcy, or still might, were pulling down 14-20 percent cash flow margins — hardly a distressed business model.”

Sharon Pian Chan, a Seattle Times journalist  and vice president of UNITY Journalists of Color, notes that online news publications have suffered steeper declines than print newspapers in hiring and promoting minority journalists. “Journalists of color have career options outside of the industry, and if the path isn’t clear within journalism, it’s probably more attractive to leave,” Chan said. “It’s partly a pattern from the past played out. “

“Journalists of color were probably less likely to seek out mentors among senior managers, less likely to be sought out as mentees by senior managers and may not have felt confident in their upward trajectory. This was made worse with the industry downturn.”

News industry leaders are voicing alarm about the shrinking diversity numbers. “At a time when the U.S. Census shows that minorities are 36 percent of the U.S. population, newsrooms are going in the opposite direction,” said Milton Coleman, ASNE president and deputy managing editor of the Washington Post. “This is an accuracy and credibility issue for our newsrooms.”

Highlights of the 2011 survey showed that minorities account for 11 percent of all supervisors in newsrooms, which remains virtually unchanged for the past four years. Four hundred forty one newspapers responding to the ASNE census had no minorities on their full-time staff. This number has been growing since 2006.

Of all minority newspaper staffers, African American reporters make up half, while Asian Americans comprise 42 percent. Two hundred eighty four Asian American journalists are newsroom supervisors. Minority women working full-time account for 19.3 percent of female newsroom staffers, while minority men account for 10.8 of male newsroom staffers. Although minorities represented 19 percent of the journalists hired for their first full-time newsroom job — up 16 percent from the last year, the percentage of interns who are minorities stands at 24 percent — a 27 percent decrease.

Web journalism organizations are little different. In the latest census, 847 out of 1,450 print and online newspapers responded to the survey; at the responding publications, only 18.72 percent of online journalists are minorities.

“The slight decline in minority newsroom representation may be small, but is part of a disturbing trend that we need to reverse,” said Ronnie Agnew, co-chair of ASNE’s Diversity Committee. “The U.S. Census numbers clearly tell us that people of color populations are growing while our newsrooms aren’t reflecting that growth. This should be a concern to all who see diversity as an accurate way of telling the story of a new America.”

Karen Magnuson, Agnew’s colleague on the committee, agrees. “Accurately reflecting the diversity of our communities in our newsrooms and local reports is essential to our industry’s success — now more than ever before,” she said. “As minority populations grow, we must grow with them, finding innovative ways to meet evolving needs for coverage and information delivery.”

An ASNE follow-up survey of non-responding newspapers found their employment of minorities closely resembles newspapers in their circulation categories that responded to the census. The ASNE census surveyed newspapers large and small, but the majority of minorities work at newspapers with circulations exceeding 100,000: 19 percent work at newspapers with a circulation greater than 500,000, 14 percent at 250,000 to 500,000 circulation papers, and 27 percent at 100,000 to 250,000 circulation newspapers — a total of 60 percent.

The new statistics are the latest indication of a historic downward spiral for diversity in the nation’s newsrooms. According to a 2008 UNITY report, the San Jose Mercury News, a MediaNews paper once considered an industry leader in its commitment to diversity, showed a dramatic increase in minority layoffs. In 2000, there were 410 minority reporters at the California newspaper. Eight years later, that number dropped to 155.

Blethen remains optimistic that the downward trend can be reversed, however. “If the Federal Communications Commission got its act together and repealed cross-ownership, enforced broadcast license public service requirements, and enforced its female and minority ownership rules, we would have the foundation to save our independent press and encourage diversity.”

Media organizations such as UNITY already have begun responding to the alarming decline nationwide. In 2008 UNITY launched a program, Ten by 2010, to bring more minority journalists into the top ranks of newspaper companies. Gannett and the New York Times were the first newspapers to join.

In addition, the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, which has trained the majority of the nation’s journalists of color, has begun a multiform editing program. That, together with ASNE’s recent diversity summit, is making a difference, Chan said. “But all of the journalism nonprofits have struggled with a downturn in financial support from the newspaper companies.”

News executives such as Blethen believe that diversity is essential to the vitality of the American newspaper industry. “Ultimately our democracy fails if all our citizens are not engaged, represented and participating. Kill the American dream, and we kill democracy. “

“Our independent press is more at risk than any time in our history due to concentration and bad ownership,” he said. “Add lack of diversity and inclusion, and we accelerate the crisis. Besides, inclusion and fair play are the right things to do.”

Adds Chan: “If newspapers want to survive as businesses, they need to serve their readers and advertisers. Readers want news that reflects the diversity of the world. Advertisers want to reach a diverse audience.”

An earlier version of this story appeared in the International Examiner; it is reprinted with permission under a partnership with Crosscut. The International Examiner is a non-profit biweekly newspaper covering Asian Pacific American communities in the Northwest; information about donations and subscriptions is here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Collin Tong

Collin Tong

Collin Tong is a correspondent for Crosscut and University Outlook magazine. He served as guest lecturer at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. His new book, "Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s," will be published in January 2014.